Deadly weapons are hardly in short supply in the Gaza Strip, but at this paintballing centre in the coastal Palestinian territory, the arms are strictly non-lethal.
“You’re not here to make war, but to have fun,” the young instructor tells customers as he hands out paintball guns stocked with cartridges that are propelled towards their target by compressed air inside the weapons.
“It’s a bit like a Kalash!” Mahmud says, referring to a Kalashnikov assault rifle, the weapon of choice for many of Gaza’s militants.
He smiles as he handles the weapon, a short black gun with a cannister on top holding the paint, leaning against a board with the Arabic rules of the game.
His enthusiasm doesn’t impress the instructor, who is eager to stress the game is strictly play, and to keep his young customers in line.
“You must respect your opponents and you stop firing at the sound of my whistle,” he says.
“The safety catch will prevent you from firing in error,” he adds. “Don’t point your gun until the game starts.”
This small centre, located in the middle of an amusement park, opened up last July.
In a bid to add a touch of the exotic, the owners decided to give the place the somewhat nonsensical name: “C’est l’ami” — French for “It’s the friend.”
But the intention went somewhat awry, and the sign above the entrance now reads “Ce l’ami.”
“In the West, paintball is very often played in a forest. The players use replica weapons of war and wear military uniforms,” the centre’s director Atallah Abu Audeh tells AFP.
The crowded Gaza Strip provides few open spaces, and no forests or woods for players to use. Instead Abu Audeh’s facility is little more than a small field with obstacles that players can hide behind and shoot around.
“On the Internet, I’ve seen people dressed in fatigues playing in centres that have been transformed into urban war zones,” says Mohammed, one of the younger players.
That would be unthinkable in Gaza, Abu Audeh points out.
“If I started handing out uniforms, the site would look like a military training group and it wouldn’t be long before Israeli drones would reduce the place to ashes!” he says.
Instead, his players wear bodysuits in different shades of blue, some of them with fluorescent green or red patches. Parts of the suits are padded to protect the players, who also wear helmets with visors or goggles to shield their faces.
The site is strewn with tyres and inflatable obstacles that players weave between, but the only thing separating the field from the trampolines and merry-go-rounds of the surrounding amusement park is a thin safety net.
Abu Audeh declines to be drawn on where he gets his equipment from.
“Certainly not from Israel. I’ll leave you to imagine where they’re from,” he says coyly, leaving little doubt that they are among the myriad items smuggled into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.
The principle of the game is simple: Players gear up as though headed to the frontline and divide into two teams. Then combat begins, with each player attempting to hit his opponents with the paintball cartridges, while avoiding the return fire.
“Many young men come here to transform themselves into fighters for an hour or two,” Abu Audeh says.
It’s a chance to safely play at the war and violence that so often engulfs the Gaza Strip.
Just last month, an eight-day conflict erupted in and around Gaza, with Israeli war planes launching hundreds of air strikes, and Gaza militants firing hundreds of rockets into the Jewish state.
The fighting, between November 14 and 21, left 175 people dead in Gaza, according to local emergency services officials. Six people were killed on the Israeli side.
Abu Audeh’s paintballing business, along with most shops and recreation centres in Gaza City, shut down for the duration of the conflict, but was undamaged and customers quickly returned to the site.
All of a sudden, the game is interrupted by the sound of real gunfire nearby.
“It’s nothing, those are celebratory gunshots, probably a wedding!” the instructor says, as the players burst into laughter.